Imagine a post-apocalyptic world where a hotel floats in the sky, an unexplained presence births herself into existence, and language sounds unrecognizable.
This eerie, striking vision is the world of "Incidents at the 22 Hotel," a new performance art piece conceived and directed by multimedia artist Wura-Natasha Ogunji.
"Incidents at the 22 Hotel," which opens Friday at the Off Center, was inspired by one of Ogunji's drawings. In the drawing, two abnormally shaped hotel towers jut into empty space, decorated with disembodied eyes. Nigerian Ife heads, ancient sculptures created in the image of powerful rulers, survey the scene from above.
Seeing historical artifacts next to futuristic imagery got Ogunji thinking about what the future would look like in a post-apocalyptic world. "If all the landmasses have gone under and the only thing that survives is a plastic floating island of garbage and we're living in these two hotels," she wondered, "is memory important anymore? Is history important?"
"Incidents at the 22 Hotel" tells the story of Unexplained Presence, a character who goes on two metaphorical journeys, one in which she sees the past and one in which she sees the future.
In the first journey, Unexplained Presence sees the history of slavery and the Middle Passage, and so she decides to escape by becoming an African artifact. In the second journey, she can see the future and recognize her own power, so she chooses to become human. Ogunji explained that the play asks: "What does it mean if she can't get away from her past, and what does it mean if she can?"
The show is most decidedly not traditional theater. Ogunji mixes together diverse influences, including performance art, where visual elements and the performers' bodies are more important than narrative; Butoh, a type of Japanese dance-theater in which the performers try to embody an idea or feeling instead of representing it; and Afro-Futurism, an artistic movement that explores issues of the African Diaspora through science fiction and fantasy.
The performers in "Incidents at the 22 Hotel" are always in motion. At a rehearsal in the Carver Museum's dance studio, Unexplained Presence (Ghislaine Jean-Mahone) and the Porter (Carole Metellus) shifted their balance and swayed back and forth slowly, as though rotating around a central point. A Runner (Nicole Vlado) circled them in an endless loop. Jean-Mahone then laboriously leaped through the space, as though bringing herself into the world through the force of her own will.
Live performance will be intermixed with Ogunji's poetic video pieces, in which she uses stop-motion editing to create the effect of bodies moving in surreal ways. In one video clip, two women jump into the air but never seem to hit the ground. Ogunji also plays with sound, so that a noise created by a performer's movement then gets transposed unexpectedly onto a different scene. For example, "A foot moving across a rock is then the rhythm for another visual," Ogunji said.
At Ogunji's East Austin studio, huge paintings hang on the walls, the lines of color evoking thread or woven fibers. The paintings belie her roots as a visual artist and photographer.
Her keen eye for the visual was on display during her most recent work, "one hundred black women, one hundred actions," which was part of the 2010 Fusebox Festival and nominated for an Austin Critics' Table award.
The multitalented Ogunji hopes "Incidents at the 22 Hotel" will inspire people to think differently about their relationship to the past and the future.
"Instead of looking back at the homeland as a place to return to, it's about looking at the future, seeing how we are important to the creation of our future," she said.
'Incidents at the 22 Hotel' runs at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Off Center, 2211-A Hidalgo Street. Tickets are $15. For tickets visit www.incidents22.wordpress.com.